Sunday, August 20, 2017

Because we bomb them, not because they hate us

 Spain invades Iraq 2003; gets attacked; leaves 2004. No more attacks. Spain goes into Syria in 2014; gets attacked.

That looks like they bomb us because we bomb them.  Yet many 'experts' and commentators indignantly reject this explanation.  They say that ISIS' terrorism, like all radical Islamist terrorism, has nothing to do with Western conduct in the Middle East or against Muslims:  that's 'blaming the victims', although it sounds more like blaming the victims' governments.

They say that Islamist terrorism is all about hate, not because we bomb them but because we are who we are, liberal, democratic, Christian.  Their motivation derives from dogma and twisted psychology, not from the West's adventures in the Middle East.

In support of their claims they cite, ubiquitously, one and the same passage from an ISIS online magazine, Dabiq.  It reads like this:

What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam. Even if you were to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you.
Is this enough support for the claim that Islamist terror is all about theologically-charged hatred?  Let's look at two things - the evidence of the passage, and the evidence contradicting it.

The evidence of the passage

The passage is from an online ISIS magazine.   People who use the quotation in support of their theological-hatred theory don't tell you that the passage is also from the magazine's last issue; Dabiq was replaced by another effort called Rumiyah.  No one cites anything similar from Rumiyah.  Whether this means anything, we don't know.

In fact there is a lot we don't know about just who speaks for whom in ISIS.  Some proponents scornfully suggest that any such doubts come from poorly informed leftists, likely superficial journalists.

Well, here, at length, are the words of Alireza Doostdar, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School:

The vast majority of ISIS’ estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters are recent recruits and it is not clear whether and how its leadership maintains ideological consistency among them. All told, our sense of ISIS’ coherence as a caliphate with a clear chain of command, a solid organizational structure, and an all-encompassing ideology is a direct product of ISIS’ propaganda apparatus.

We see ISIS as a unitary entity because ISIS propagandists want us to see it that way. This is why it is problematic to rely on doctrines espoused in propaganda to explain ISIS’ behavior. Absent more evidence, we simply cannot know if the behaviors of the different parts of ISIS are expressions of these doctrines.

And yet, much of the analysis that we have available relies precisely on ISIS’ propaganda and doctrinal statements. What does this emphasis obscure? Here I will point out several of the issues I consider most important.

First, we lack a good grasp of the motivations of those who fight for or alongside ISIS, so we assume that they are motivated by Salafism and the desire to live in a caliphate. What information we do have comes almost entirely from ISIS propaganda and recruitment videos, a few interviews, and the occasional news report about a foreign fighter killed in battle or arrested before making it to his or her destination.

Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’ military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.

For example, CNN recently quoted former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i as claiming that in Mosul, ISIS was recruiting “Young Iraqis as young as 8 and 9 years old with AK-47s… and brainwashing with this evil ideology.” A Pentagon spokesman is quoted in the same story as saying that the U.S. was not intent on “simply… degrading and destroying… the 20,000 to 30,000 (ISIS fighters)... It’s about destroying their ideology”.

The problem with these statements is that they seem to assume that ISIS is a causa sui phenomenon that has suddenly materialized out of the thin ether of an evil doctrine. But ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement. It did not need to sell its doctrine to win recruits. It needed above all to prove itself effective against its foes.

Dabiq was, precisely, a propaganda magazine.  Whether its statements capture the views of most ISIS members, we do not know.  Perhaps these are not even the views of the leadership, but statements designed to produce a certain effect in the audience.  We certainly have no reason to assume that the views expressed in this one passage represent the views of those who actually conduct terror attacks.  We are often assured, after all, that these individuals are quite ignorant of Islam, even irreligious.  That hardly sounds like their motivations must align with the theologically drenched orthodoxy of a single passage in an on-line magazine.

That's not all.  What does the article - not just the passage - actually say?  Users of the passage delight in pointing to the insistence that ISIS members will continue to hate Islam whether or not the West stops bombing and torturing Muslims.

One immediate reaction one might have is, well of course!  Why on earth would anyone bombed or tortured cease hating the bombers and torturers after they stop?  But to focus on hatred would be to ignore a crucial distinction.  The West's concern is not about hatred.  There is hatred between various groups throughout the world.  These days, Catalonians seem to hate British tourists.  American liberals hate Trump supporters.  Many people hate hipsters or baby boomers.  Hatred is not what matters.  It's whether, in this case, hatred engenders what the article called 'fighting'.  Even then, that's not what really concerns the West.  The concern is not whether ISIS fights Western forces in the Middle East or piggybacks on conflicts in Saharan Africa.  It's whether ISIS mounts terror attacks in Western countries.  In other words, the focus on hatred is at two removes from the West's real concerns: first, hatred doesn't mean fighting, and second, fighting doesn't mean terror attacks on the West.

The distinctions do seem to matter if those who cite the passage read, first to the end of the passage, and then to the end of the article.  The passage ends, you may recall, like this:

Even if you were to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you.
Well, small comfort, you might say, because the West isn't about to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam.  But note, first, that here there is a clear distinction between continuing to hate and continuing to fight.   Second, he talks about 'fighting', not about attacks on Western civilians in the West.  There's quite a difference between the two.

Then there is the end of the article.  It goes like this:

We continue dragging you further and further into a swamp you thought you’d already escaped only to realize that you’re stuck even deeper within its murky waters… And we do so while offering you a way out on our terms. So you can continue to believe that those “despicable terrorists” hate you because of your lattes and your Timberlands, and continue spending ridiculous amounts of money to try to prevail in an unwinnable war, or you can accept reality and recognize that we will never stop hating you until you embrace Islam, and will never stop fighting you until you’re ready to leave the swamp of warfare and terrorism through the exits we provide, the very exits put forth by our Lord for the People of the Scripture: Islam, jizyah, or – as a last means of fleeting respite – a temporary truce.
Though fans of the famous passage says it makes everything 'crystal clear', the article doesn't seem that way.   To me it sounds like if the West stops killing Muslims, even if it doesn't embrace Islam, it gets a temporary truce.  That in turn sounds like:  we won't bomb you if you stop bombing us, and get out of our face.  What does seem clear is that the fighting, never mind terror attacks, can stop whether or not 'they hate us'.  So hatred is hardly the issue.  Perhaps that is why there haven't been Islamist terror attacks in so many countries with no military engagement in the Middle East, among them many very Christian Latin and Central American states, or sub-Saharan Christian nations like Zimbabwe and South Africa.

To summarize, we have here one passage which never refers to attacks in the West on civilians.  It says a lot about hatred and fighting.  It distinguishes between the two.  It seems to suggest that you can have hatred without fighting.  None of this offers strong support to the claim that they bomb us because, for theological reasons, they hate us.  It even faintly suggests the contrary claim:  that they bomb us because we bomb them.

So much for the evidence of this one passage - the crown jewel of the 'they bomb us because they hate us' crowd.  It doesn't seem like this one passage tells us anything conclusive about the people who actually do bomb 'us', and it doesn't seem like the passage even nails down the connection between hatred-charged propagandists and the actual terrorists.

What then about evidence opposed to the theorists who cite this one passage?

The opposing evidence

The opposing evidence is abundant, clear, and in my view decisive.   Every major terrorist attack on the West, from 2001 on, has offered as justification:  we bomb you because you bomb us.  Here are some passages that support this claim.

9-11, where the reference to 'freedom' has to do with Al Qaeda's old objection the bases in the Gulf and the US fleet, both used for air attacks on Muslim militants:

The militant Islamic group decided "we should destroy towers in America" because "we are a free people... and we want to regain the freedom of our nation," said bin Laden, dressed in yellow and white robes and videotaped against a plain brown background.

9-11 again:  On 7 October 2001, Osama bin Laden issued the following statement.

There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots. Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that.

There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that. What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our nation [the Islamic world] has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years. Its sons are killed, its blood is shed, its sanctuaries are attacked, and no one hears and no one heeds."

July 7th attacks, London:

1210: A website linked to al-Qaeda carries a statement saying it has carried out a "blessed raid" in London "in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan".


The man on the tape says: 'We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two-and-a-half years after the attacks on New York and Washington. This is an answer to the crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. If your injustices do not stop there will be more if god wills it.'

In a statement on Saturday on its radio station, the Islamic State referred to Mr. Lahouaiej Bouhlel as “a soldier” who had responded to the group’s call “to target states participating in the crusader coalition that fights the caliphate.”

In 2014, the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, called on the group’s followers to attack Westerners in retaliation for strikes by the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He has repeatedly singled out France, which is part of the coalition, as a main enemy.

Several ISIS supporters celebrated the horror attacks using the sick hashtag 'ParisIsBurning'.

One said: "God is great and thank God for these lone wolf attacks. At least 100 hostages and countless wounded."

His tweet was sent from the Kuwait port of Mina Abdulla, according to Twitter's location settings.

Another added: "Oh God, burn Paris as you burned the Muslims in Mali, Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine."

Paris, again:

A statement in ISIL’s name later claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were in retaliation for French air strikes against its positions in Syria.

These are not propaganda pieces in a magazine.  They are mostly from people who actually planned or conducted the attacks.  Even when they are couched in religious language, the motives are deterrence and retaliation, both rational by Western standards, or revenge, entirely commonplace in Western morality.  No doubt they are based on gross oversimplications of why the West 'attacks Muslims'.  Gross oversimplification is hardly absent from the moral and strategic discourse of Western 'experts'.

If they bomb us because we bomb them, perhaps we should turn down the self-righteousness and piety a notch.  We might also stop fixating on 'hate'.  There is nothing sick or twisted about disliking getting blown apart, and hitting back.  There are no mysteries to be unveiled about 'radicalization'.  I don't presume to offer suggestions about how these conclusions, coupled with some adult understanding of what the West has done, should shape strategy.  But it might be a first step to stop supporting, directly or indirectly, every murdering, torturing rĂ©gime in the Middle East.  Another step might be to stop military operations which do no good.   Whatever’s best, an understanding of your enemy is probably not a bad idea.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

August 2017: The News Cycle

The news cycle resembles one of those disturbing, dramatic medieval landscapes.  This one is informed with some enigmatic message conveyed by the placement of its elements.

At the center, but not dominating it, is Trump.  Almost all of the painting concerns him.  Groups animatedly argue about some utterance of his, or some failure to utter something, or some utterance that came too late, or didn't.  One corner section of foreground displays some fighting - not a bloody battle but there is someone dead on the ground.   In another corner stand mythical figures, the characters of the Game of Thrones.  Interlaced with all this, like flitting birds, are vignettes of racism or sexual misconduct.  Someone who really has everything - fame, fortune, talent, beauty - had her ass grabbed; there was a trial.   Someone said 'nigger', but the saying is implied; it cannot be depicted.  Some did or did not go to this or that parade.  On some tiny bit of canvas there is a toilet; it refers to a dispute about who can use it.

What then lies in the distant background?  Three hundred dead in a mudslide in Sierra Leone; they are barely a smudge.  A sea dotted with thousands of drowning people.  Many black lives lost, but they didn't matter.  We also see giant icebergs drifting, scorching cities, arctic fires, and in another far corner, the Middle East, hundreds of thousands murdered; thousands more tortured to death.  The level of detail is incredible given how, by the standard of column-inches, these depictions must be almost microscopic.

Some things you might expect in the landscape aren't there at all; they are too small to represent.  The prison populations, the unemployed, the people on food stamps, the meth cookers, they might rate a flick of paint, not enough to bring recognition.  Far off, the Thai slave trawlers, the world's torture chambers, the Rohingya, one could go on and on...  nothing.  For the millions who have died in the Congo, year in year out, not one speck.

What is the meaning of this?  It is not that people don't care about the catastrophes and atrocities.  Contrary to so much moralizing, anyone will tell you that three hundred black lives, even in Africa, matter more than one white life in Charlotteville.  Anyone will tell you that the Syrian holocaust is vastly more important than who grabbed Taylor Swift's ass.  Anyone, one hopes, will acknowledge that climate change matters more than toilet disputes.  Nobody thinks the theft of Game of Thrones episodes is a world-shattering crisis.  There is nothing wrong with people's real priorities.

No, the picture quietly suggests those over-crowded rats who savage one another.  They cannot affect their environment, so they fixate on one another.  Trump, for the left as well as the right, is a hope substitute.  He is something someone might possibly affect, either to help or to hurt.  When he was elected, some of his opponents said they would be - how mortifying - 'diamond-hard' in opposition, on the streets in the hundreds of thousands to fight his agenda.  But it was always clear that going into the streets, in the hundreds of thousands, would achieve nothing, not even in defense of the Paris Agreement which also, truth be told, will almost certainly achieve nothing.  No marches and no computer classes will create jobs and bring better lives to the rust belt.  No street theatre will get many thousands of unjustly incarcerated black people out of jail.  No one expects anyone to devote enough resources and political will, let alone intelligence, to help Africa or the Middle East.

Indeed politics itself is done.  For ten years I taught courses on democracy at a university in Canada, often thought to have one of the world's best democratic societies.  I was critical;  I hoped for students to defend the institution.  Never, in ten years, did I find one single student who believed democracy was worthwhile.  The despair we feel goes much deeper than what's discovered in polls; it manifests itself in our focus.  That is why we obsess about terror, sin, racism, and generally speaking the evil hearts of our neighbors.  We cannot see a way out of the cage, so we lash out at our fellow rats.

We certainly will find no way out if we don't look.  We shock one another, but that is no excuse for wallowing in indignation.   Demoralized as we may be, we still need to reconsider how to change the landscape in which we are all so shocked.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Heller's right about the rebels and wrong about Syria.

Sam Heller is quite correct. It is a myth that the FSA ever was or ever had a prospect of being an essential counter-terrorist force.   He is also correct in saying others performed better.  But you can drive a truck through what he infers from these undeniable truths.

First, the FSA isn't an essential counter-terrorism force because no Syrian force is essential.  That's because almost any Syrian force will likely get about the same results if adequately supported.  It is either myopic or disingenuous to hold up the superior success of the Kurdish SDF as some significant fact about the relative capabilities of the Kurds versus the rebels.  The rebels never had anything remotely resembling the US air support, special forces, intel, and equipment lavished on the SDF.  Perhaps that's why, in Heller's world, the SDF seems more 'motivated' to fight ISIS than the rebels.  The most he's entitled to say is that we haven't any idea whether or not the FSA would, comparably supported, have done as well.

The only anti-ISIS elements that can be considered essential are Iran's regular and irregular forces.  After all, the West wouldn't dream of putting significant numbers of ground troops at risk; that wouldn't go down well with the voters.  No other regional power offers anything like the resources Iran commits.  To talk about who's essential without acknowledging this plain fact displays a will to distort the region's realities.

Heller's amplifies his righteous indignation by attempting to outbid other analysts in the who's-freaking-out-more-about-terrorism sweepstakes.  Yes, Jabhat al Nusra used to cooperate with ISIS.  Yes, the FSA did a bit too.  Yes, all rebels at some point cooperated with Nusra, & probably will again.  However the issue he apparently tries to address is whether the rebels, not only in the past but today, are a credible anti-ISIS force.  Are they?

Well, nothing changes your mind about people like them constantly trying to wipe you out.  That's what ISIS tries to do to the rebels, with some success.  So any rebel groups - if, as Heller seems to say, reliability is an issue - are entirely reliable ISIS opponents.  The US could shower them with weapons and air support and no, they wouldn't suddenly switch sides and fight for the Caliphate.  Does this really need saying?  If Heller is worried that the rebels would use this stuff to fight Assad, he needs to tell us why he thinks it would be a shame that someone, at least, opposed a murderer orders of magnitude worse than ISIS.

Lastly, Heller follows the analysts he likes to dump on by suggesting that the rebels are unreliable counter-terrorist forces, not just because (contrary to fact) they are soft on ISIS, but also because they are soft on Nusra.  Here he sinks low.  He counts Nusra as terrorist because, five years ago, they set off bombs in Assad-controlled areas.  Every party in the region has knowingly killed civilians at some point.  Since US air attacks are conducted with the certain knowledge that many civilians will die, it's fair to say that, after Assad & Company, no one does this more than the US.  But the plain fact is that, for the past two years at least, Nusra has caused as few or fewer civilian casualties than anyone else.  There is also, despite claims to the contrary, no credible basis to warnings that they plan to attack the West.  So to call Nusra terrorist is to place one squarely in Humpty-Dumpty's camp:  "a word means anything I want it to mean."

At the heart of Heller's 'anger' lies a hatred, not of terrorism, but of Nusra's extreme social
conservatism.  You can hate this all you want, but someone posing as a harsh realist should acknowledge that Nusra's attitudes are shared by a large portion of Syria's population.  The record of militant opposition to the Assads, going back to the 1980s, strongly suggests that the choice in Syria has always been between Assad and 'radical' Islamists: indeed Heller's claims support that view.  No matter how distasteful that choice, the scale of Assad's atrocities dictate a preference for the Islamist alternative.  The 'caution' and 'honesty' that drives analysts to cry for Nusra's blood is - if we're being realists - nothing more than de facto support for a mass murderer.